Ecology needs all of us, says Joe Nunez-Mino.
I am an openly gay man from a working class background who also happens to be a second generation migrant and an ecologist. None of these facets entirely define who I am but they do provide me with personal experience of the importance of equality and diversity issues.
Throughout my adult life I have had to challenge prejudice in both my personal and professional life. Confronting discrimination has never been easy which is why I am very proud to belong to a learned society which has recognised the importance and value of addressing equality and diversity issues explicitly.
There are many benefits to the British Ecological Society (BES) in making these overt efforts to welcome diversity. It will not only enrich the wealth of ideas within the BES, but will also make us more representative and relevant.
Society is becoming increasingly divided and fragmented which leaves me in no doubt of the urgent need for action by all of us to address inequality. As part of my work within the conservation sector I am still shocked at how audiences and participants at meetings and conferences are rarely representative of society at large. While we have made some progress in terms of the proportion of women working in conservation, there is still a worrying lack of conservation ecologists from ethnic and other minorities.
We are often found promoting the diversity of life, it’s just as important that we also celebrate and increase the diversity of people in our ranks.
The success of the BES’s efforts will partly depend on how we engage with this process as individuals. To encourage more people from unrepresented parts of society to join or support our work we need to become more welcoming and champion diversity. We all need to step up and share in this responsibility. Acknowledging unconscious bias and implementing appropriate measures to tackle it is one step we can all take.
Mentoring programmes, such as the BES’s Women in Ecology scheme, have an incredibly positive impact and should be more widespread across our academic and applied communities. Equally important is the influence that role models can have in reinforcing positive images of underrepresented groups.
Professor Joan Roughgarden is an American ecologist and evolutionary biologist who deserves special mention as one of the few transgender role models in our field. Not only is she an inspiration to many but her research has challenged accepted perceptions about gender identity and sexual orientation. She has also issued a dire warning of the danger in ignoring this issue, saying: “In our society we face not only persecution of people with diverse expressions of gender and sexuality, but also the prospect of doing permanent harm to the integrity of the gene pool of our species, thereby damaging our species for posterity.”
Visibility is important
As an early career scientist from a lower income background I struggled at several stages of my ecological career and it was only through the backing and understanding of colleagues and supervisors that I was able to succeed. Sadly, I hasten to add that I also encountered xenophobia of different sorts far more often than I should have. We need to make sure everyone with the desire and capacity to become an ecologist feels supported and embraced by our community.
Those of us who are from minority groups who are not immediately visible will need to be more explicit and vocal about who we are. This sometimes feels frustrating to us and possibly irritating to colleagues. What does my sexuality or family heritage have to do with my career as an ecologist? The truth is that it should have absolutely nothing to do with it but our visibility will both acknowledge the diversity that already exists in the BES and inspire a new generation of ecologists.
It is particularly important that this happens now since inequality, and particularly income inequality, has continued to rise in many countries. Inequality has been associated with a range of social and health problems; creating inclusive environments brings the added benefit of improving wellbeing for everyone.
Change is still needed
Harvey Milk, the first elected openly gay politician in the USA stated “All young people, regardless of sexual orientation or identity, deserve a safe and supportive environment in which to achieve their full potential.” I would suggest this statement is extended to all people and not just young people. Harvey Milk was elected to office when I was 10 years old and is just one example of some of the positive changes I have witnessed throughout my life on the issue of equality.
It would be easy to become complacent but there is still a lot of work to be done to make equality a universal value. As a tropical ecologist I have worked in countries where prejudice is still enshrined in law and culture. In the UK we only have to look at the House of Commons with just over 30% of female MPs. Equally alarming is the fact that the number of reported hate crimes in the UK spiked after the EU referendum and 2017 terrorist attacks. There is still more positive change needed, and by confronting inequality within our own community we are sending a strong message to a much wider audience.
Change is never easy and this needs to be explicitly acknowledged. One barrier to change is the fact that underrepresented groups are often misunderstood and undervalued by the dominant majority. We need to create more opportunities for people from different backgrounds, beliefs and experiences to exchange thoughts and ideas. By creating safe places for this to happen we will be enriching our science. Without these opportunities and support some people may find change more challenging than it needs to be.
As ecologists, studying change and diversity is central to the science we are all passionate about. We are often found promoting the diversity of life, it’s just as important that we also celebrate and increase the diversity of people in our ranks. By empowering people from diverse backgrounds, we will be contributing towards a more progressive and resilient BES.
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